Monday, April 22, 2024

Combatting Misrepresentations; How Qatar focused on showcasing its Islamic Culture during World Cup

Qatar, as hosts of the biggest international football tournament undertook initiatives to challenge undermining orientalist narratives by bringing Qatar’s civilisation and religious traditions to the forefront in a positive light. Photo: Hana Muneer/Maktoob

The Athaan, or the Call to Prayer reverberated through the serene atmosphere around the Grand Masjid in Doha. Foreign football fans were seated within its halls, their faces looked mesmerized, and the halls fell to a hush, as their chats silenced with awe. Several of them were still on their feet, touring around the halls, slowly sipping their aromatic cup of Qatari gahwa (coffee) and reading messages of peace plastered on the walls for their kind understanding. A friendly volunteer is seen guiding them through each section, which contains brief but helpful information about Islam and its teachings. 

Women and Men were guided to separate rooms to change into traditional Qatari attire; the volunteers in the room gave women elegant long cloaks called Abayas to don, and helped cover their hair with a hijab, while the men were given the customary thobe and “Ghutra” the white headdress worn by Qatari men. After this, they are escorted outside, and served dates to accompany the hot Gahwa. 

A volunteer is seen asking them where they’re from so that they can assign specific volunteers depending on the language they are comfortable with. They pass through the hallways as the guide explains the foundational essence and tenets of Islam, and its rulings. From women, children, minority and labor rights, to the articles of Islamic faith and culture, the guide explains while constantly prompting his audience to clear any doubts or ask whatever questions they may have.

I accompanied a couple of American women to observe their experience at the Mosque. A lady among them couldn’t help but express her surprise when she learned about the rights of women in Islam, and was as intrigued to know that all of this was established around 1400 years ago. 

“The experience was eye opening, and prior to this, I had no knowledge of what I thought Islam was or represented. I’m glad that the mosque is opening these doors for people who are non-muslim and foreigners to learn and ask questions we wouldn’t ask or be scared to ask in fear of any judgement.”, said Drea Solis, a football fan from California. “I am leaving this place with better understanding and further curiosity of what Islam is.”

“The best of you are the best to their families”, Prophetic saying displayed at the parking lot of the Grand Mosque, Doha. Photo: Hana Muneer/Maktoob

Similar scenes of enlightenment can be found in the Abdullah Bin Zaid Al Mahmoud Islamic Cultural Center at Al Fanar, with the addition of 3D screening of holy sites like Makkah and other such enticing visual educational bites prepared to inform the foreign audience. Visitors can also get their name written in Arabic calligraphy, and watch graceful swirls of ink run on paper by skillful professional calligraphists present there.

Boards with quotes from influential Muslims displayed around popular places like Souq Waqif in Doha. Photo: Hana Muneer/Maktoob

Spreading words of peace and good values 

Shortly after the World Cup began, Qatar University put out a call for volunteers to distribute cards containing sayings and the actions of the Prophet Muhammed (Peace be upon him) to the guests who came to Doha. This initiative intrigued me, so I joined the group of volunteers who would soon embark on a journey to meet with diverse groups of people who are stepping foot in Arab, Islamic land for the first time, with no prior knowledge, or hold distorted ideas about this place in general. The hadith cards contained beautiful, relevant sayings of the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him. One of them being:

“When one of you arrives at a gathering, he should say the greeting of Salam (Peace). He should also do so when he wants to depart, for the first greeting is not more meritorious than the last”, depicting the Islamic culture of wishing nothing but peace and kind hospitality when approaching people. 

While distributing these cards, I came across fans who had questions and were eager to let me know that their experience in Qatar was nothing like they expected.

Books distributed for visitors perusal. Photo: Hana Muneer/Maktoob

“The World Cup in Qatar has to be the best world cup, and I absolutely loved my time in Doha, the people were kind and welcoming, the food awesome, and the culture amazing.”, exclaimed Pierre, a French fan wearing a Ghutra in the colors of the French flag. When asked about earlier calls from France to boycott the Qatar World Cup, he replied by calling it “a bunch of nonsense”.  “The public opinion [in France] is far from reality and it is very distorted. They all should come here to see for themselves how wrong they are in their perception of the middle east.”, he said.

Multilingual Volunteer Force were available at all major places of exhibition to guide visitors and answer any questions they have about Islam. Photo: Hana Muneer/Maktoob

When travelling to major tourist spots in Doha, you can spot “Exploring Islam” booths, which welcome those touring to learn more about the religion, along with eyecatching billboards displaying inspiring quotes from wellknown Muslim figures about what their faith means to them. These booths have volunteers who hand out books that discuss topics that are often speculated and misapprehended about, such as “Human rights in Islam” and “Sharia and Justice”.

Abdullah Bin Zaid Al Mahmoud Islamic center, Doha, has been reserved for non Muslims only during the World Cup season. Photo: Hana Muneer/Maktoob

The mini-books serve as foundational material to help clear the cloud about such matters, said one of the volunteers at such a booth in Katara Cultural Village.

“So many people, they have wrong ideas about what our religion and culture is, and they come here trying to learn. The response we have gotten is mostly positive so far, with people appreciating the new knowledge and the correction of their preconceived notions and ideas of who we are and what we believe in,” she added. 

Media influence and narratives revolving around the World Cup has largely been negative, The “false slander campaigns’, as they were termed by FIFA Qatar World Cup CEO Nasser Al Khater, was unlike anything other World Cup hosts had ever encountered, with even players joining in demonstrations on the pitch to corroborate. The idea that foreigners hold about the east are still largely influenced by demeaning orientalist tropes, as is evidenced from media reports that nitpick whilst ignoring any appreciable improvements the gulf state has made its affairs. Qatar, as hosts of the biggest international football tournament undertook initiatives like these in an attempt to challenge such undermining narratives by bringing Qatar’s civilisation and religious traditions to the forefront in a positive light.

Hana Muneer, an independent journalist, is a media student in Doha.

*People quoted without names did not prefer their identity to be disclosed.

Hana Muneer
Hana Muneer
Hana Muneer is an independent journalist from Kannur, Kerala.
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